FYS 187-4 - Games and Computation
Why Games?

Why Games?

Brief comments on the recreation, exploration, and observation of art, beauty, and truth of games.

Why do people play, create, and research games?  What is it about games that continues to attract the attention of researchers in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Recreational Mathematics?  Here are a few thoughts to spark a larger conversation on why games represent both an important area of cultural study and a foundational pursuit of the understanding of humans and reason.

The Recreation of Games

Just as sports offer fun, competitive exercise of the body, games offer fun, competitive exercise of the mind.  Party games (e.g. Charades, the Dictionary Game / Balderdash, Pictionary) often exercise skills of creative communication.  Trivia games exercise the recall of  broad, common knowledge.  Many board, card, and dice games exercise our deepest reasoning and memory skills and ability to model those of our opponent. 

Although "recreation" is often associated with the word "leisure", leisure often has an aspect of ease or lack of activity, whereas recreation is often defined as "activity done for enjoyment when one is not working".  Put another way, recreation is playful work we opt to do.  As my mother would say, "Vacation isn't doing nothing. Vacation is doing something different."  In our recreational gameplay, we exercise aspects of our humanity (creativity, problem solving, communication, etc.) when we don't need to simply because we enjoy them.  As the athlete enjoys the healthy functioning of the active body, the gamer enjoys the healthy functioning of an active mind.

The Exploration of Games

Many games can be thought of as carefully crafted microworlds, inviting gamers to explore the complex terrain that can spring into existence from even simple rules.  There are few dice games with simpler rules than those of Pig, yet the boundary between situations where one should roll or hold, continuing or ending one's turn, is like a complex alien landscape with a wave crashing over rolling dunes.

Physicists have long pursued a mathematical model that describes all physical behaviors of our universe.  A theory of everything is an eagerly pursued dream.  A game is a micro-universe where the rules define the dynamics and the gamer has a hope of playfully unfolding the mysteries of a new world.  Gamers are explorers, experiencing discovery and charting new landscapes with each play, formulating hypotheses of how to best navigate the landscape towards the realm of Victory, and empirically supporting and refuting such hypotheses.

Beyond the game-level pursuit of optimality, games can offer insight to the opponent's intellect and personality.  We come to know each other better through games.

"If you would read a mans Disposition, see him Game, you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven Years Conversation, ..." - Richard Lingard

As one who cares to know others better, observe how other players play, especially at the meta-level: how they handle victory and defeat, how they treat other players, how they react to risks and rewards, and whether they value other gamers over the game itself as evidenced through gracious words, considerate use of decision time, and a thousand little opportunities to express value for other players.  Never win the game at the expense of losing the metagame; play your best at the game while treating other players as precious friends.  How well you treat your opponents is a deep expression of character.

The Art, Beauty, and Truth of Games

A good game design is a thing of beauty, inviting appreciative observation.  Artful design gives rise to interesting balances that must be maintained between risk and reward, short-term and long-term ramifications, and cooperation and antagonism with opponents within the game.  The simple rules of many deep games (e.g. Go) give rise to patterns of play and reason that have a beauty not unlike a beautiful phrase of music or intricate sculpture.  What is even more surprising and delightful in my experience is how one can find morals in games that transcend games and speak Truth.  To modify Mark 8:36 for Chess: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole material advantage, and lose his own king?"

Many games offer shallow (and even often good) evidences of winning potential that are not the same as real winning potential.  The deep strategist sees beneath the surface advantage to the true utilities within the game, sometimes offering seeming sacrifices for a greater, deeper advantage.  Many "economic"-style games offer short-term scoring gain at the expense of long-term scoring gain, rewarding delayed gratification.  Discernment of a proper time to value each element of the game is reminiscent of Ecclesiates 3.  In jeopardy games, we learn that to win more often means being willing to lose more spectacularly. 

The astute observer of games can extrapolate from the truths of these microworlds to the Truths of our world.  As we play, we are invited to become Philosopher-Gamers.

What Do You See in Games?

If you have also come to appreciate the joy of game recreation, the exploration of game microworlds, and the art, beauty, and truth of games, I would appreciate the opportunity to read and consider your insights as well.

Todd Neller